09 June 2017

from Clover, chapter VII, Making Acquaintance (Susan Coolidge)

The sun was very hot; but there was a delicious breeze, and the dryness and elasticity of the air made the heat easy to bear.

The way lay across and down the southern slope of the plateau on which the town was built. Then they came to splendid fields of grain and 'afalfa, - a cereal quite new to them, with broad, very green leaves. The roadside was gay with flowers, - gillias and mountain balm; high pink and purple spikes, like foxgloves, which they were told were pentstemons; painters' brush, whose green tips seemed dipped in liquid vermilion, and masses of the splendid wild poppies. They crossed a foaming little river; and a sharp turn brought them into a narrower and wilder road, which ran straight toward the mountain side. This was overhung by trees, whose shade was grateful after the hot sun.

Narrower and narrower grew the road, more and more sharp the turns. They were at the entrance of a deep defile, up which the road wound and wound, following the links of the river, which they crossed and recrossed repeatedly. Such a wonderful and perfect little river, with water clear as air and cold as ice, flowing over a bed of smooth granite, here slipping noiselessly down long slopes of rock like thin films of glass, there deepening into pools of translucent blue-green like aqua-marine or beryl, again plunging down in mimic waterfalls, a sheet of iridescent foam. The sound of its rush and its ripple was like a laugh. Never was such happy water, Clover thought, as it curved and bent and swayed this way and that on its downward course as if moved by some merry, capricious instinct, like a child dancing as it goes. Regiments or great ferns grew along its banks, and immense thickets of wild roses of all shades, from deep Jacqueminot red to pale blush-white. Here and there rose a lonely spike of yucca, and in the little ravines to right and left grew in the crevices of the rocks clumps of superb straw-colored columbines four feet high.

Looking up, Clover saw above the tree-tops strange pinnacles and spires and obelisks which seemed air-hung, of purple-red and orange-tawny and pale pinkish gray and terra cotta, in which the sunshine and the cloud-shadows broke in a multiplicity of wonderful half-tints. Above them was the dazzling blue of the Colorado sky. She drew a long, long breath.

'So this is a canyon,' she said. 'How glad I am that I have lived to see one.'

21 March 2017

from The Human Not-Quite-Human (Dorothy L. Sayers)

Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man - there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as 'The women, God help us!' or 'The ladies, God bless them!'; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything 'funny' about woman's nature.

05 February 2017

from Confusion (Elizabeth Jane Howard)

She had thought that a weight would be lifted once she had got into the train with the visit behind her, but the pall of boredom and irritation was quenched now only by guilt, as she thought of all the ways in which she might have given her mother more pleasure, been kinder, nicer, more patient.  Why was it that, in spite of all these years during which she felt that she had grown from being a spoiled and selfish girl into a thoroughly grown-up wife and mother and reponsible member of a large family, she had only to be with her mother for a few minutes to revert to her earlier, disagreeable self?  It was her behaviour, after all, that made her mother so timid and conciliatory, made her, in fact, everything that she, Zoë, found most exasperating.

28 January 2017

from 'On the art of conversation' (Michel de Montaigne)

Meanwhile nothing in stupidity irritates me more than its being much more pleased with itself than any reasonableness could reasonably be.  It is a disaster that wisdom forbids you to be satisfied with yourself and always sends you away dissatisfied and fearful, whereas stubbornness and foolhardiness fill their hosts with joy and assurance.  It is the least clever of men who look down on others over their shoulders, always returning from the fray full of glory and joyfulness.  And as often as not their haughty language and their happy faces win them victory in the eyes of the bystanders who are generally feeble in judging and incapable of discerning real superiority.  The surest proof of animal-stupidity is ardent obstinacy of opinion.  Is there anything more certain, decided, disdainful, contemplative, grave and serious, than a donkey?

15 January 2017

God's Grandeur (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs -
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

In Memoriam A.H.H. CVI (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
  The flying cloud, the frosty light:
  The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
  Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
  The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
  For those that here we see no more;
  Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
  And ancient forms of party strife;
  Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
  The faithless coldness of the times;
  Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
  The civic slander and the spite;
  Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
  Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
  Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
  The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
  Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

02 October 2016

from De Amicitia, sections 87-8 (Cicero)

quin etiam si quis asperitate ea est et immanitate naturae, congressus ut hominum fugiat atque oderit, qualem fuisse Athenis Timonem nescio quem accepimus, tamen is pati non possit, ut non anquirat aliquem, apud quem evomat virus acerbitatis suae. atque hoc maxime iudicaretur, si quid tale possit contingere, ut aliquis nos deus ex hac hominum frequentia tolleret et in solitudine uspiam collocaret atque ibi suppeditans omnium rerum quas natura desiderat, abundantiam et copiam, hominis omnino aspiciendi potestatem eriperet - quis tam esset ferreus qui eam vitam ferre posset cuique non auferret fructum voluptatum omnium solitudo? verum ergo illud est, quod a Tarentino Archyta, ut opinor, dici solitum nostros senes commemorare audivi ab aliis senibus auditum: si quis in caelum ascendisset naturamque mundi et pulchritudinem siderum perspexisset, insuavem illam admirationem ei fore, quae iucundissima fuisset, si aliquem cui narraret habuisset. sic natura solitarium nihil amat semperque ad aliquod tamquam adminiculum adnititur, quod in amicissimo quoque dulcissimum est.

No, even if anyone were of a nature so harsh and monstrous as to shun and loathe human society - such, for example, as we hear that a certain Timon of Athens once was - yet even such a person could not avoid seeking out someone in whose direction he might pour out the venom of his embittered soul. And this might best be judged if something like this could happen: suppose that a god were to remove us from this human world and put us in some solitary place, and, while providing us there in abundance and plenty with all the material things our nature desires, were to take from us altogether the ability to see any other person - who would be so iron-hearted as to be able to endure that sort of a life? And who is there from whom solitude would not take away the enjoyment of every pleasure? It is certainly true, therefore, what Archytas of Tarentum (I think it was) famously said, something which I have heard repeated by our old men who in their turn heard it from their elders. I mean when he said, 'If someone were to  ascend  into heaven and gaze upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself.  And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.'  Nature therefore, abhors solitude, and always strives for some sort of support; and the best support is a really dear friend.

06 September 2016

from High Rising (Angela Thirkell)

When the party got to Low Rising, they found George Knox at work in the garden.  George, whose dramatic sense was not one of the least factors in the success of his biographies, liked to dress his part, and at the moment was actively featuring Popular Writer Enjoys Hard Work in Garden of his Sixteenth-Century Manor House.  He had perhaps a little overdone the idea, being dressed in bright brown plus-fours, a gigantic pair of what looked like decayed football boots, a very dirty and worn high-necked sweater, and a tweed shooting coast with its buttons and pockets flapping.  Large as George Knox was at any time, this wilful collection of odd clothes made him loom incredibly.  From his seven-league boots the eye travelled upwards to the vast width of his plus-fours, to the huge girth of thick jacket over thick sweater, only to find, with a start of surprise, that his large face, with its knobbly forehead and domed and rather bald scalp, completely dwarfed the rest of him.  He had decided to devote that afternoon to heavy digging, and was excavating, unscientifically and laboriously, a piece of the kitchen garden.  The sky was coldly pink in the west where the winter sun was setting behind mists, George Knox's bare-branched trees made a delicate pattern against the sunset flush, George Knox's smoke from the chimneys of his Lovely Sixteenth-Century Manor House was going straight up into the air, a light or two shone golden in George Knox's windows, his feet were clogged with damp earth, his hands were very dirty, and a robin was watching him dig.

'It couldn't have been better arranged, George,' said Laura as she approached.  'Perfect setting for author, down to the robin.  I shall have to write a book about the lovely vendeuse who marries the strong, noble son of the soil, and use you as a model.'

On hearing this, the robin flew away.

George Knox stuck his spade into the earth, straightened up painfully, in the manner of one who has been devoted to life-long toil in the agricultural line, and mopped his brow with a large red handkerchief with white spots.

'That's the worst of the country,' he remarked.  'Lady authors coming round unasked, frightening away one's little feathered friends.  Who frightened Cock Robin?  I, said the Laura, with my feminine aura.  Laura, dear, I cannot offer you my hand as it is all earth, but you are as welcome as ever.'

'This is Mr Knox, Amy,' said Laura, exhibiting George to her friends with some pride.  'And this, George, if you will stop rubbing mould into your eyes with that preposterous handkerchief, is Mrs Birkett, whose husband keeps Dotheboys Hall and breaks Tony's spirit.'

'If I am to take your statement as one and indivisible, Laura, it is a lie, because no power on earth, nor indeed any demons under the sea, could ever dissever Tony from his profound self-satisfaction.  But if I may separate your sentence into its component parts, I am more than willing to believe that this is Mrs Birkett, whose acquaintance I am honoured and delighted to make, and who, or whom, I look forward to shaking hands with when I have cleaned up a bit.'

'I'm so glad you get mixed about that "who", George.  It is the death of me.  That, and commas, are the bane of my life.  The only way one can really express what one wants to say is by underlining every other word four times, like Queen Victoria, and that appears to be bad taste now.  What are you digging, George?'

'Earth?'

'Yes, but I mean what?  Potatoes, or bulbs, or asparagus beds?' asked Laura, who cared little about gardening and knew less.

George Knox looked guiltily round.

'The gardener has gone over to Stoke Dry to fetch a parcel from the station, so I thought I would dig for exercise while his back was turned.  He doesn't like me in his garden when he is here.  I dug up a lot of things that smelled like onions.  Come into the house and we'll find Sibyl.'

'Probably it was onions,' said Laura, as they went into the sitting-room, 'or else leeks.  You can send me some on St David's Day, and I'll wear them in my bonnet.'

'Are you Welsh, then?' asked Amy Birkett.

'Oh, no, but its's nice to wear things on the right day.  Only the right day - yes, Tony, take Sylvia and go and find Sibyl, only keep Sylvia on the lead in case Sibyl's dogs jump at her.'

'Oh, Mother, Sibyl's dogs wouldn't jump at Sylvia.  Dogs always know a friendly dog, Mother.  They are marvellous.  It's a kind of instinct.  Mrs Birkett, did you know about instinct?  Mr Ferris told us about it in maths, one day.'

'But why in maths, Tony?  Is instinct a kind of algebra?'

'No, no, but Mr Ferris is very sensible and tells us all sorts of things in the maths period.  His father used to be a doctor in the country, and when the sheep were all buried in snow in the winter, the dogs had an instinct to find them and they leaped on their backs and licked the snow off them.'

'But where does Mr Ferris's father come in?' asked George Knox, slightly bewildered.

'He doesn't come in, sir, it was the dogs,' said Tony pityingly.  'They have a marvellous instinct -'

His mother gently pushed him and Sylvia out of the room, and returned to her seat, remarking placidly:

'As I was saying,  and I am going to say it, because it is too interesting to lose, the right day and the right flower never seem to come together.  One can't possibly expect roses to be out on St George's Day, at least not if St George's Day comes on the twenty-third of April.  Unless, of course, in Shakespeare's time April was much later on account of Old Style, or people had hothouses, which we never hear of.'

'Where does Shakespeare come in?' asked Amy, as bewildered by the introduction of the bard as George had previously been by Mr Ferris's father.

'Well, Shakespeare's birthday was St George's Day, so it all somehow goes together.  And as for St Patrick's Day, shamrock may be in season then, I don't know, not in Ulster, I suppose, but anyway in the Irish Free State, but one can't tell, because what they sell in the streets looks like compressed mustard and cress.  Luckily one doesn't have to wear thistles for St Andrew, and as for St David -'

But here George Knox, who had been simmering with a desire to talk for some time past, took the floor, drowing Laura's gentle voice entirely.

'St David, dear Mrs Birkett,' he began, 'had no nonsense about him, and knew that a leek was about all his countrymen were fit for.  I do not offend you, I trust, in saying this.  I would quarrel with no one for being Welsh, as I, thank God, am French and Irish by descent, and am far removed from petty racial feelings, but for a nation who are, or who is - damn those pronouns, Laura - time-serving, sycophantic, art nouveau, horticultural and despicable enough to try to change the leek to a daffodil, words fail me to express my contempt.  You were alluding just now to Shakespeare's birthday, my dear Laura.  What would Shakespeare have thought if Burbage had proposed to substitute a daffodil for a leek in Henry the Fifth?  Where, Mrs Birkett, would be Fluellen and Pistol?  The whole point of that scene would be lost - lost, I say,' he repeated, glaring affectionately at Sibyl who came in with Tony.  'As well might you have substituted the leek for the daffodil in the Winter's Tale.  Imagine Shakespeare writing that leeks come before the swallow comes - except, of course, when you are eating them - or take the winds of March; for though doubtless they may by the calendar, though on that point I profess no special knowledge, poetically it is impossible.  No, dear ladies, the Welsh are utterly and eternally damned for this denial, worse than whoever's it was in Dante, of their national emblem.'

--

Saturday morning dawned fair and bright.  The sun shone, the cuckoo bellowed from a copse hard by, other birds less easy to recognise made suitable bird noises.  In the little wood primroses grew in vulgar profusion, a drift of blue mist showed that bluebells were on the way, glades were still white with wind-flowers.  All the trees that come out early were brilliant green, while those that come out later were, not unnaturally, still brown, thus forming an agreeable contrast.  A stream bordered with kingcups made a gentle bubbling noise like sausages in a frying-pan.  Nature, in fact, was as it; and when she chooses, Nature can do it.